Blogger Template by Blogcrowds

Poverty and Riches in Scripture

In the last class of the term, Doug Wilson made a remark that, though not an important point in the context of the class, got me thinking, and hasn’t left me alone since. He said something to this effect, “It’s true that the Bible has a lot to say about the sins of the rich, but it is certainly not true that the Bible is only concerned with the sins of the rich. The prophets spend a lot of time berating the rich, but Proverbs focuses primarily on the sins of the poor. Jesus echoes the message of the prophets, but Paul echoes the message of Proverbs. So if someone asks, ‘Does the Bible worry more about the sins of the rich or the sins of the poor?’ we must reply, ‘It depends which part.’” Now, while I would certainly agree that the Bible is not only concerned with the sins of the rich, this statement struck me as suspicious at best, just plain false at worst. And, when I had a chance to do some investigation, I found that it was the latter—just plain false.

First, let’s look at Paul, since that’s the quicker and easier one. Paul does not address issues regarding either rich or poor very much in his letters, but we can find a number of examples, especially toward the end. So, first, let’s see what he has to say about the poor—supposedly, his dominant theme when it comes to wealth. A thorough investigation of his letters reveals only 3 places (each only one verse long), where he addresses the sins of the poor…and that’s a stretch. Let’s look at them. First is Ephesians 4:28: “Let him who stole steal no longer, but rather let him labor, working with his hands what is good, that he may have something to give to him who has need.” It is not clear that this verse really focuses on “sins of the poor,” unless it is only poor people who steal, which quite clearly is not true in our own time or any other time. Moreover, the second half of the verse is asking for such people to give to those who are in need…which makes this more relevant as an exhortation to the rich, than to the poor. But let’s count it for half each way, why don’t we? Then come the verses oft-cited by conservatives--2 Thess. 3:10: “If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat”; and 1 Tim. 5:8--“But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith, and is worse than an unbeliever.” I think we may reasonably agree that these address issues that are more likely temptations for the poor than for the rich (who wouldn’t have had much trouble getting enough to eat, whether or not they worked), but this is the entire scope of Paul’s warnings to the poor—2 and a half passages, each only a single verse.

What does he have to say about the sins of the rich? Minimally, there are four passages, totaling 11 verses: the condition that church officers not be greedy for money in 1 Tim. 3:8 and Tit. 1:7, and extended condemnations of riches and greed in 1 Tim. 6:5-10, 17-19. You could probably add to this the exhortation to give cheerfully and generously to the collection for the poor in Jerusalem in 2 Cor. 8:1-9:15 (39 verses), since, though this applies to everyone, it applies to the wealthy in particular. Let’s count this for half then, and also count for half Eph. 4:28, mentioned above. This makes 5 passages, totaling 31 verses, compared to 2.5 verses. In other words, Paul has more than 10 times as much to say about temptations of the rich as about the poor! Or, if you want to be picky, and not count the 2 Corinthians passage at all, he still has 4-5 times as much to say.

So what about Proverbs, supposedly Paul’s inspiration for his admonitions to the poor? With Paul, we could perhaps excuse a misreading of the emphasis, since there are so few passages to consider. But in Proverbs, where issues of wealth receive more discussion than anywhere else in Scripture, the emphasis is clear, and is overwhelmingly focused on the sins of the rich, so it is hard to see how any careful reader of the book could agree with Wilson’s statement.
Of course, a number of verses in the Proverbs are rather enigmatic, and I cannot profess a perfectly complete and accurate count here, but I think this is pretty close. First, then, how often do Solomon (et al.) exhort or warn the wealthy? I located 31 exhortations or warnings, totaling 45 verses (3:9-10; 11:24-26; 13:7, 13:8; 14:20-21; 14:31; 15:27; 16:8; 17:5; 18:11-12; 18:23; 19:17; 21:13; 21:17; 22:9; 22:22-3; 23:4-8; 23:20-21; 27:23-24; 28:6; 28:8; 28:11; 28:15; 28:20; 28:22; 28:27; 29:7; 29:13-14; 30:8-9; 30:14; 31:20). These include quite a number of warnings against taking advantage of the poor, as well as warnings about the fleetingness of riches, or about the sins of greed or gluttony that wealth gives rise to.

So what about the poor? Well, I identified 15 exhortations, totaling 28 verses, which might be read as warnings to the poor. So, at best, the poor receive about half as much warning and instruction as the rich in Proverbs. But this is probably not an accurate way of putting it. See, of those 15, 4 (10:15; 13:8; 19:4; 19:6-7; 22:7) are not really warnings or exhortations to the poor, so much as simply observations that being poor isn’t a good thing, a statement with which all but the most romanticizing Dickensians will agree. I refer to statements like “The rich man’s wealth is his strong city; the destruction of the poor is their poverty” (10:15) and “Wealth makes many friends, but the poor is separated from his friend” (19:4). I think we can agree that these verses should not really be taken as Proverbs “focusing on the sins of the poor.” We thus have 11 exhortations, totaling 23 verses. But wait! What are these about? Well, they’re about being lazy, and of course, we know that poor people are lazy.
As soon as you see it written like that, it looks pretty absurd, but that seems to be the thought process that leads to the conclusion that Proverbs focuses on the sins of the poor. Of course, in modern welfare states, we are all well aware of the phenomenon of a whole class of indolent indigents; but, though certainly there have been plenty of lazy poor people throughout history, this is hardly an accurate generalization. Indeed, I think, if you took a broad historical sampling, you would find that laziness was more often a temptation of the rich (who could get by with it, for a while), than for the poor (who, usually lacking welfare services, would’ve starved if they hadn’t been willing to work). And so it is that in most of these warnings to the sluggard in Proverbs, the warning is not phrased “You’re poor, and you’d better work your way out of it” but “If you don’t work, you’ll end up poor,” which seems to presuppose that the person being admonished has some wealth to begin with. For example, in the famous passage in 24:30-34, the lazy man has a vineyard, a field, a stone wall—he seems rather well-off—and he is warned “a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest; so shall your poverty come like a prowler, and your need like an armed man”—the poverty is something new that will come on him; not a condition he is living in. And in 21:25-6, the lazy man seems like a person with money, because he is condemned for greedy, rather than being a generous giver: “the desire of the lazy man kills him, for his hands refuse to labor. He covets greedily all day long, but the righteous gives and does not spare.” The warnings against sloth, then, far from being taken as admonitions to the poor, are probably better taken as warnings to the rich against becoming poor. But let’s be conservative, and count them half each way. This will affect 7 passages, totaling 18 verses (6:6-11; 10:4-5; 13:4; 20:4; 20:13; 21:25-6; 24:30-34), which will then count for 3.5 passages (9 verses) on both the rich and poor sides of the equation. This leaves only 4 passages, totaling 5 verses, which actually clearly address temptations of the poor (13:8; 28:3; 28:19; 30:8-9).
In the final analysis, then, we have 34.5 exhortations to the rich, totaling 54 verses, and only 7.5 exhortations to the poor, totaling 14 verses. Proverbs, then, has 4-5 times as much to say against the sins of the rich than against the sins of the poor, and the former are usually addressed much more explicitly and directly. This hardly constitutes a shift in emphasis from the message of the prophets.

In conclusion then, whatever Wilson may see in Proverbs and Paul, it is clear that these parts of the Bible join with the unanimous chorus of Scripture in focusing on the sins that come from mammon—greed, pride, oppression, and lack of generosity. The poor do face their own temptations, and the Bible is aware of this, but does not seem overly worked up about it. As wealthy American Christians, we need to take a good look in the mirror that the Bible provides, rather than reprimanding the “lazy poor” from our comfortable armchairs.


A couple thoughts, Brad:

If the Bible gives a command once versus repeating it 40 times to the hard-hearted, that doesn't mean it's any less important. For example, Proverbs 13:24:
He who spares his rod hates his son, But he who loves him disciplines him promptly. - This is the only place in Scripture (that I know of) which commands quick discipline, yet it is SO important in raising a child - crucial, even.

You may be right that the sins of the rich are hammered on more than sins of the poor, but that doesn't mean that the "Bible's not too worked up about it." It means the authors didn't run into that sin as frequently. It probably means that the dangers of being rich are greater than the dangers of being poor, but in no way that God is more approving of the laziness of the poor than of the rich.

Also, although I follow most of your reasoning, your conclusion at the end seems a guilt-trip for Americans. I think you're over-generalizing Americans; most wealthy Americans are the individualist-success-story type who work their butts off for their money, and idolize their work. While that's a ditch in and of itself, those Christians who have worked hard for a good-sized, honest living (which is many of us) need feel no guilt just because we have something that others don't have.
Many, many Americans have gained their wealth through hard labor (consider the farmers!). Many of us are not relaxing on our plush armchairs denouncing the hard-working souls in the ghettos. Rather, many Americans are hard-working, industrious people, and God blessed our Christian fore-fathers with prosperity which we still experience. You're over-generalizing America. From the Lord come riches and honor (1 Chronicles 29:12).

In Christ,

brother Luke

April 14, 2009 at 2:44 AM  

Newer Post Older Post Home